Walking into the Saturday morning Shabbat services at the Danforth Jewish Circle, you notice Jesus staring down at you from the stained glass windows. You also notice the overwhelming warmth and friendliness you’re greeted with.
The Danforth Jewish Circle is an inclusive Jewish congregation that operates out of the Eastminster United Church, at Danforth and Jackman avenues. The East End United Church (EEU), the Danforth Jewish Circle (DJC), and the Neighbourhood Unitarian Universalist Congregation (NUU) are three different religious congregations that share this building and collectively form the Danforth Multifaith Commons (DMC).
The concept of the DMC intrigued me from the start. It’s not every day that you see three religions sharing space in such harmony. What these congregations share is more than just a building but rather a desire to foster a warm and accepting community in the heart of the Danforth neighbourhood.
The DMC is open to people of all races, sexual orientations, and gender identities. This was unmistakable at the service I attended at the DJC, which also happened to be the day of the Bar Mitzvah of a transgender boy. The whole community, young and old, accepted the boy and helped him celebrate this milestone. I left the building with a smile on my face and immediately wanted to learn more about the community work that the DMC does in the larger Danforth area.
I spoke to Liat Radcliffe Ross, chair of the Social Justice Committee at the DJC for the last four years, to learn more about the DMC and the work they do. Ross explained that one of the main reasons the DMC came together was that the congregations “all come from very social-justice-focused communities,” rather than just a practical gathering for the purpose of sharing a building.
Ross explained that her role as chair of the Social Justice Committee, like many other volunteer positions, is “what you make of it.” She guides the committee in their decisions on how to help the community. When she first joined in January 2016, they were sponsoring a Syrian refugee family of seven, and this overtook their time for three years. They had to raise money, organize donations, gather sponsorships, and more. Once this project was complete and the family was safely settled, around February 2019, the committee had to decide what they wanted to do in the future, and this was around the time that Ross was appointed to her position. She had to determine what their next project should be, to which she said: “We want to do everything!” With the help of their DMC partners (though sometimes independently), the DJC Social Justice Committee is now doing work in regards to Indigenous reconciliation, climate action, anti-racism, and have applied to sponsor another Syrian refugee family.
In order to keep track of all these projects, the DMC’s respective Social Justice Committee leaders meet once a month and update one another on everything they plan to get done in the community. The DMC does lots of multifaith work, as well as organizing bigger events, like their yearly lecture series. This year’s series marked the third year in which each of the communities appointed a speaker to give a talk on a common theme. They cross-advertised the event to educate as many people as possible about important issues in the community. The most recent lecture series, held at the beginning of the year, focused on ways to create a more sustainable society. EEU hosted a talk on food security and problems with the sustainability of food banks; NUU’s talk was on the sustainability of the fashion industry; and the DJC’s discussion was on how tax reform can reduce economic inequality.
The series also helped the DMC realize that it’s more important to take action than to just talk about it. One of the sessions in the lecture series’ first year was about homelessness, and audience members were surprised to learn that it’s often harder for unhoused people to thrive in the summer than in the winter. “We think about the cold as being a problem, but in the summer, finding a place to cool down, having enough to drink, is a real issue,” Ross explained. This led to a water bottle giveaway at the church. Volunteers organized a stand with water bottles as well as pamphlets for places to find support in the area. Another project that came from this speaker series was a cellphone drive for unhoused people. The South Riverdale Community Health Centre realized that cellphones are often the only way that doctor’s appointments can be managed nowadays, so the church acted as a cellphone drop-off location for this initiative.
Although the Danforth Multifaith Commons is united through its shared social justice values, it is not the only community in the Danforth area that believes in these principles and joins forces on a regular basis. In our discussion, Ross made it clear that there are many cultural and religious communities in this neighbourhood that have worked together over the last ten years, and that should not be diminished because they are not part of the DMC. The DMC also works closely with the Madina Masjid mosque at Danforth and Donlands avenues, the Danforth Islamic Centre on Danforth and Victoria Park avenues, the Holy Eucharist Ukrainian Catholic Church on Broadview avenues, and the Pakistani Community Centre on Gerrard Street East, south of the Danforth.
These communities, along with the DMC, have come together in times of joy at community picnics, and in times of sorrow, such as when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and a prayer was held at the Holy Eucharist Ukranian Catholic Church. What’s even more impactful in the community are the smaller-scale projects. These are long-standing operations that the DMC is continuously working on, such as Out of the Cold, in which the EEU provides a hot sitdown meal, clothing, and a take-away lunch every Friday evening from the beginning of November to the end of March. Volunteers from NUU and DJC help out with this project, too, and folks at NUU contribute by baking once a month.
The impact that the Danforth Multifaith Commons makes in the larger Danforth community is abundantly clear. What’s even clearer are the positive relationships that so many religious institutions in the Danforth and East Toronto have with one another. What started for me as an exploration of a synagogue in a church became an introduction to the beautiful interconnected community I’ve just joined. As Ross so eloquently puts it, “The DMC is very, very cool, but it’s also part of a bigger story.”